Stroll through the pits at an American Nostalgia Racing Association event, and the first thing you notice is the cars.
Lots and lots of race cars in a variety of shapes and sizes.
But dive deeper between the tow rigs and motorhomes, and you see families. Lots and lots of families.
Families such as the Bartas from Bakersfield, where a third-generation driver made her first trip down Auto Club Famoso Raceway in April.
“It’s a family event,” said Steve Barta, 60, who pretty much has sucked his entire family into the sport. “You can look around. We’ve got lots of friends and family here. It’s fun. It gives us a family event to go to. Plus the competition is pretty fun, too.”
Barta got his first taste of drag racing in 1978, shortly after high school. His son, Jason, raced junior dragsters when he was 8 and now drives a Nostalgia Eliminator I dragster (7.60 seconds in the quarter-mile).
And Jason’s 8-year old daughter, Ava, secured her junior dragster competition license on April 23.
That proved a bit harrowing for both father and grandfather.
“It was her first time in the car, and she did great,” Jason said. “She was a little nervous, you could see it in her face, but she was determined.”
Jason, 33, and Steve gave Ava a walk-through before her first run, which dad wanted to be just a short burst off the starting line before she worked her way to a full eighth-mile blast.
“She went farther than I wanted her to, but everyone said ‘That’s a Barta for you, never want to listen, think you can go as fast as you want,’” Jason Barta said. “She took it to about 330 (feet) and it freaked me out.”
Her last trip down the track that weekend was a full eighth-mile run.
“My 8-year old granddaughter was pushing 45 miles per hour today, Steve Barta said. “That’s a little scary. If she actually saw how fast that was, like on a street … She’s doing a great job.”
The elder Bartas have not done too bad, either.
Steve Barta, who drives a ‘62 Nova in the D/Gas class (10.60 seconds) is coming off an ANRA championship last season. Jason Barta has won a March Meet, two California Hot Rod Reunion races, a Hot Rod Heritage Series championship and two ANRA championships — all since he started driving a front-engined dragster five years ago.
David Barta, Jason’s uncle, helped the late Roger Coburn build the car several years ago. It was driven by two others before Jason took over the duties. Coburn was part of the famed (James) Warren, (Marvin) Miller and Coburn Top Fuel team which won many races in the 1970s.
“I wish (Roger) was here to see what Jason’s done with the car; he’s done pretty good with it,” David Barta said.
David Barta is two years younger than brother Steve, and was lured to the track when Steve Barta started racing, though David has never driven.
“Steve got into right after high school, and I’ve been in it ever since,” he said. “I started helping Roger in the late 1970s, right after James (Warren) got out of the (Top Fuel) car.”
Which brings us full circle back to Steve Barta, who started the family tradition quite by accident.
“I had a street car, a ‘65 Chevelle, and I hurt the motor in it,” he said. “The guy doing the motor work raced out here. I didn’t even know they had a weekly/monthly program going on. I came out and started watching him. Once he got my car done, I came out.
“Eventually you start adding slicks, taking the exhaust off and you end up trying to make race cars out of them.”
Barta bought his current car in 1980 and raced it for about 11 years before selling it and stepping up to Super Comp (an 8.90-second index for dragsters) for a few years.
“After that, my son started playing sports and everything so I kind of backed out of it for a few years,” he said. “After he got out of high school we started back into it.
“I got a little street car, started stripping it, cutting the weight, and then the Nova I had sold became available so I bought it back in 2003 and have been racing it ever since.”
No electronics are allowed in ANRA competition, so most drivers use an adjustable throttle stop to try to keep as close to their index number during changing conditions. But computers are used in the pits.
“We log in our runs with the weather conditions and try to predict what we’re going to do the next round,” Steve Barta said. “(In) the old days, you stuck your finger in the air, figured if it was hotter or colder and what way the wind was blowing.
“It’s a lot tighter racing now than it was back then. Everybody’s pretty dialed in, so you have to be right on your index or pretty close.”
Which means races are often won or lost by the reaction time for the driver at the starting line. The old drag racing adage, “you snooze, you lose,” rings true in ANRA racing.
“I beat myself if I go red or have a bad light, cause I know I lost due to that,” Jason Barta said. “The No. 1 deal is to have a great light every pass.”
But win or lose, a weekend at the drag strip is always a good time for the Bartas.
“We’re just one big family,” Jason Barta said. “Drag racing is what’s kept us together. “My boy, Blake, is only 5 and he wants to get in one, so in a couple of more years, when he turns 8, he’ll have one, too. We’ll have a bunch of cars out here pretty soon.”
The Bartas will be back at Famoso Raceway next Saturday and Sunday for another ANRA race.